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A Noble and Melancholy Instrument - Music for horns and pianos of the 19th century
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata in F major for piano and horn, Op. 17 (1800) [15:01]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849) [9:10]
Franz Joseph STRAUSS (1822-1905)
Nocturno, Op. 7 (1864) [5:45]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Prelude, Theme and Variations ((c. 1860) [10:28]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921
Romance in E major, Op. 67 (1866) [7:59]
Alexander Konstantinovich GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Rêverie, Op. 24 (1890) [3:45]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Villanelle (1906) [6:53]
Gilbert VINTER (1909-1969)
Hunter’s Moon (Version for horn and piano) (1942) [6:50]
Alec Frank-Gemmill (cor d’orchestra, Wienerhorn, cor solo, cor à pistons)
Alasdair Beatson (Lagrassa, Streicher, Blüthner, Bechstein pianos)
BIS BIS-2228 SACD [65:56]

This is an intriguing and well executed concept album, one which starts with the premise that of all the instruments in the nineteenth century the horn saw the greatest development. It sets out to show this by using the various developments of the instrument during the century, matching them up with contemporary pianos to perform pieces to illustrate these developments. The result is a disc that presents a series of works, not all of them well known, in the way that the composer would have envisaged them being played.

The disc opens well with a wonderful performance of the Beethoven Sonata played on a valveless French Cor d’orchestra dating from the turn of the nineteenth century. In comparison to my other recording of this work, which is played on a modern instrument, this recording shows the complexity of the composer’s writing. This is a technically demanding work, one in which Alec Frank-Gemmill acquits himself very well.

By comparison the Schumann, one of my favourite pieces for horn and piano, is performed on a late nineteenth century Wienerhorn and here the performers bring out the very best from this music. The same instrument is used in the Strauss Nocturno, a deeply romantic and virtuosic work; he was after all regarded as one of the finest and most important horn virtuosos of his day. Sadly, not much of his own music has appeared on disc, I only have his Three Quartets for four horns, he is mostly remembered these days as the father of Richard Strauss.

The third instrument, the Cor solo, dates from 1823 and was made by Marcel Auguste Raoux in Paris and is used in the Rossini and Saint-Saëns. The Rossini has the feel of an operatic overture, its differing sections and themes introducing different emotions into the music, including humour. The Romance by Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is a beautiful Adagio, a work which I have previously known in the recording by Per Jacobson (Kontrapunkt 32062/63). Whereas Jacoson uses a modern French Horn, the horn on this recording is valveless, and the breath control of Frank-Gemmill is excellent.

The final horn on this disc is an early twentieth century Cor à pistons with the final three works being played on this Belgian instrument and sounding the closest to a modern French Horn. The Glazunov came as a bit of a shock, I hadn’t realised that he had composed any such music. It is the shortest work on the disc and left me wishing that the composer had developed it further. Whilst I knew the Dukas, I don’t own a recording for comparison; this, too, is an interesting and exciting piece, with the use of the mute being quite telling. The final work is the piano reduction of Vinter’s Hunter's Moon, originally composed for horn and orchestra; this is a faithful adaptation and is often used as an ABRSM graded exam piece, with its differing sections and themes ideal for testing the player and forms an ideal closing piece for this recital.

Alec Frank-Gemmill, who is the principal horn of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is in excellent form throughout, showing he is the master of the four horns that he employs on this disc. The contribution of Alasdair Beatson, and of the four instruments that he plays, should not be overlooked. He proves himself a thoughtful chamber musician and the partnership between himself and Frank-Gemmill works very well together. The booklet notes by Frank-Gemmill are very good, whilst the recorded sound is excellent and very well balanced.

Stuart Sillitoe


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